The Most Indispensable QB
GLENDALE, Ariz. — So I saw 23 of the teams in the NFL in person this summer. While watching the last one, Arizona, play a preseason game, I began to think about Carson Palmer’s value versus other quarterbacks in the league. Since the midpoint of the 2013 season, Arizona is 13-2 when Palmer starts at quarterback, 5-6 when he doesn’t. I wondered how that stacked up against other very good to great quarterbacks.
The Patriots haven’t had to worry about life without Tom Brady much (though that may change soon). The last time he didn’t play, 2008 (knee injury), New England went 10-5 without him. Peyton Manning hasn’t missed a start in his three Denver seasons. The year before Manning arrived, with Tim Tebow, mostly, at quarterback, Denver went 8-8 and beat Pittsburgh in a playoff game. The Steelers, I discovered, are 5-3 in the past five years when Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t start. Hard to judge on Drew Brees and the Saints; he’s missed one start in nine New Orleans seasons. Or on Philip Rivers or Eli Manning, both of whom have started every game since 2006, or Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson, both of whom have started every game since they were drafted in 2012. (Though the Colts stunk in 2011 and Seattle was 7-9 pre-Wilson that year.)
Aaron Rodgers? Green Bay’s 3-5-1 without him since 2010, but Matt Flynn almost won at New England in 2010, threw for a franchise-record 480 yards to beat Detroit in 2011, and won at Dallas in 2013. So I don’t quite include Green Bay in those teams that are bereft without their starting quarterback.
That’s not all of the good quarterbacks, but you get the point. Most good teams still have a fighting chance when their starter goes down.
The Cardinals without Palmer are a different story. He missed 11 games last year. He missed the last eight, including the playoff loss, after tearing his ACL in a game. In those last eight Palmer-less games, the Cards were 2-6, and averaged a league-low 11.1 points per game.
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It’s possible Palmer is the most indispensable quarterback on a playoff contender in the league. I always wonder what that kind of pressure—from a locker room, from a coaching staff, from an organization, from a community, from a state—feels like for a quarterback. Boomer Esiason once said that he loved that for three hours a week in the fall, he controlled how a region felt. He just loved the power.
And the less bombastic Palmer?
“I actually love that,” Palmer said while Arizona's locker room cleared out after the Aug. 22 game against San Diego. “I definitely feel it. But it doesn’t feel any stronger than it ever has. For me, it’s always felt that way, going back to playing quarterback in fourth grade. The pressure obviously intensifies at each level—high school, college and then the NFL—but it’s basically the same. That's what I love about the position, that pressure. Last year I noticed it, it felt weird on Sundays to be laying on the couch after I blew my knee out, watching our team play.”
Palmer thought for a second.
“You miss it,” he said. “It’s like a drug. You get addicted to it. And then when it’s not there, it’s just awkward, weird, uncomfortable.”
Palmer has a strange kind of quiet swagger about him. He and Joe Flacco are a lot alike. Very rarely demonstrative, they walk quietly through their own locker room and are among the quietest on the practice field. They let their play do the talking.
It’s not that they’re lacking in confidence. Is it possible to have a humble swagger? That’s what Palmer has. He’s the kind of guy who listens to the bawdy jokes at a party, and doesn't tell them; the kind of guy more interested in listening to a lecture when he could learn something rather than actually lecturing someone not as smart as he is.
The way he said the line about the pressure feeling the same way it did in fourth grade … he said it so matter-of-factly, with a verbal shrug. As if to say: Doesn’t every quarterback feel that way?
“That’s the thing I really like about Carson,” coach Bruce Arians said. “That’s exactly what you want to hear out of your quarterback. All the great ones I’ve been around want the ball in the fourth quarter at crunch time. They want it all on their back, like a great shooter in basketball, who’s like, during a timeout late in the fourth quarter, Just give the ball to me.
“He probably won me over our first year against Detroit, early in the season. He throws a pick-six in the second half, we go behind, and he comes over and sits on the bench. Isn’t going crazy or anything like that. He just says, ‘Well, I screwed that one up. Let’s get back and win this game.’
“I said, ‘Okay, let’s go win the game.’ The guy’s got grit. Nobody else’s fault. He just owns up, tells the truth, wants the ball again, and when he gets it, you know you’ve got a great shot to go out and win that game. And we came back and won that game.”
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Two things this year that intrigue me about Palmer and the chances of the Cardinals:
1. What’s he doing looking totally healthy nine months after knee reconstruction? “I gotta give sports science, and his own fortitude, a bunch of credit,” Arians said. Palmer said he never doubted his ability to be ready for the start of the season, and in fact, he was ready for late minicamp work in the spring—at full speed. That, he said, came from his 2006 ACL surgery and rehab on the same knee.
“I knew I was going to play this summer way back when it happened. The thing about knee rehab is it’s a grind, and there are no shortcuts. I started Nov. 19, and it was six days a week for the first five months. I would get there at 7:30 in the morning and be done by 2. Totally monotonous. It’s easy to be like, ‘It’s noon, I want to go home,’ but I never did that. We got done with mandatory mini vet camp June 12, and they forced me to take a week off. I went with my family to Lake Tahoe and did not go to a gym, did not do anything. I didn’t want to do that because I’d been working so hard. Why stop now? But because I was with the right people and forced to do it the way they wanted to do it and I had put the time in, that week was huge for me. I swam in the lake, went on the boat, hung with the kids in the sand. Didn’t sweat for a week. What a great time. I drank beer and just hung out and relaxed. And I came back totally rejuvenated, it was like I had been off for a month and half, and it was six and a half days.”
And how does he feel entering the grind of (he hopes) a 16-game season—and more?
“Totally normal,” he said. “Absolutely great. Nothing hurts.”
“Last year was the best team I’ve ever been on. Not even close. And this year is only better.”
2. Will a very shaky-looking line keep him upright? Against San Diego in preseason game two, Palmer was chased all over the field for his short time in the game, and nothing changed in Oakland on Sunday night. Palmer played 37 snaps, with 25 pass drops, and got hit significantly or sacked on 10 of them. The Raiders took him to the woodshed, basically. “Very fixable,” Arians said after the Raider game. “We’re going to make a change at right tackle that I think will help [former fourth-rounder Earl Watford takes over there, with vet Jared Veldheer on the left side]. Plus, Carson held the ball too long against Oakland. [Raiders defensive coordinator] Ken Norton’s a Seattle product, and he tends to want to pressure the passer, and Carson needs to just take the check-downs when he sees that pressure. Check, check, check. But he wants to make plays down the field; that’s who he is. That’ll be fixed for the season, though.”
For his part, Palmer said he actually enjoyed getting hit in the preseason. “Just like you need to get back practicing and feeling good about running on the knee again, you need to feel good about getting hit again too. You go months without getting landed on by a 300-pounder. You’ve got to get hit a few times, and get used to how you’re going to feel the day after, and two days after. So I don’t mind the hits at all. I need them.”
Arizona will be a fascinating team to watch. Rookie defensive coordinator (James Bettcher). Youth all over the offense. Safeties playing down in the box again because of a thin linebacking corps. But Palmer’s used to it. He got drafted by a weak Cincinnati team in 2004, traded to one of the worst teams in football (Oakland) in 2011, and traded in 2013 to an Arizona team coming off a 5-11 season. He’s 16-6 since coming to the desert.
“I love our chances,” he said. “Last year was the best team I’ve ever been on. Not even close. This year, we are as good on defense as we are on offense, and we are really good on special teams. And we didn’t lose anybody. Well, we lost [cornerback] Antonio Cromartie. I think we’ve got enough guys to replace him. Other than that, we signed a top guard, Mike Iupati, in the offseason [out till late September with a knee injury], we’ve got draft picks, other free agents, we’ve gotten better. We still have a ways to go, but if last year was the best team I’ve been on, then this year is only better.”
Ahh, the optimism of the preseason. It’s everywhere. It’s a little quiet, listening to Palmer, but he’s shown he delivers—when his team can keep him healthy.
Now for your email:
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COUSINS IN CONTROL
One thing I really don't understand about the perception of newly anointed Washington starter Kirk Cousins is that he is prone to turnovers. You absolutely can't deny that he has completed more passes to opposing teams than necessary, but if you look at the circumstances, he has thrown his interceptions when his team was down by a significant margin. In fact, 13 of his 18 career interceptions came when his team was down by seven or more points, most often in the second half of games.
Even with these picks, I believe Cousins has what it takes to be an above-average starter in the league, similar to pre-Super Bowl Drew Brees, racking up yardage and, when trying to will his team from a seven-plus point deficit, forcing the ball into tight gaps and picked off on occasion. With an emphasis on running the ball this season and a defense that is improving in DC, Cousins should face these situations less often and be more successful in maintaining possession. What do you think?
My overall impression of Cousins is that he has a chance to be a good NFL quarterback. But when he had played extended periods in his first three years, particularly his last two, warts have shown up. Specifically I remember his game against the Giants to end 2013, when he didn’t have great protection but struggled mightily and threw at least one bad interception. Then I remember last year, also against the Giants, when he had a debacle of a game and threw four interceptions. Now, at the training camp practice I saw this summer, Cousins looked terrific. I’m not saying he’s doomed to failure in any way. What I’m saying is, I haven’t seen enough of the good Kirk Cousins to be convinced he is Washington’s quarterback of the future. I don’t mind Jay Gruden giving him a legitimate chance. He is a good person and a hard worker. It could well be that in his fourth year, some of the bad throws we’ve seen in the first three have been learning situations for him and he won’t repeat the same mistakes. We’ll see.
RG3’S DEMOTION: A FOOTBALL DECISION
I live in Maryland and it seems we will never get away from this story. The whole thing became too personal for everyone involved. Take a step back and it’s pretty simple—the team got burned taking a quarterback early in the first round. It is not the end of the world—other teams have done it and moved on (Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf, Joey Harrington, David Carr, Akili Smith etc.). The decision on RG3 finally became a football decision, which is what it should have been in the first place.
—Robert P., Washington D.C.
You are right that other teams have made mistakes and moved on. But the teams you reference—Cleveland, San Diego, Detroit, Houston, Cincinnati—have moved on without significant success. Except in the case of San Diego and Detroit, which now have solid quarterbacks of the present and future, it’s clear that missteps at quarterback-drafting have hurt those franchises. There really isn’t a great moral of the story with the Griffin situation because when you look at history, many high first-round quarterbacks end up washing out. It’s hard to go with teams coming off a terrible season and expect the rookie quarterback to be a magic wand for a franchise. I still think, however, that Griffin at 25 would be a good risk, and a risk I would definitely take if I could put him on the bench for a year or two to study and learn under a good coach and staff.
How can anyone look at Odell Beckham Jr.'s catch against the Cowboys and think what we need to do is to eliminate catches like that? I am a Cowboys fan, and I thought it was electrifying. The league needs to remember that it is there for entertainment, not to placate old players saying “that would never happen back in the day.”
Until such time that the NFL makes hard rules about what gloves you can wear and how tackified they can be, I don’t believe there’s any good reason to criticize or put asterisks on catches made with gloves that at that time are perfectly legal. I guess I’m like Tim Brown, the Hall of Fame wide receiver who told Sam Farmer of the L.A. Times recently that you’d be naive to think that the type of glove that Beckham was wearing against Dallas didn’t have something to do with him making that incredible catch. But I just think that unless there is some rule mandating what kind of glove a receiver can wear, any kind of glove is fair game.
A LOSE-LOSE TRADE
While it's clear the Browns have little or nothing to show for the trade made with the Falcons (which netted Atlanta Julio Jones), it's not clear the Falcons benefited, either. Obviously Jones is great talent, but he has only lead his team in receiving one year (2014), and his team actually finished with a worse record than the Browns. While I would rather have Jones than the collection of players the Browns drafted, could it be that the Falcons, who already had a franchise quarterback in place, would have been better off not making the trade and using all those picks themselves? Net: Atlanta is in worse shape now than when it made the trade with Cleveland—a peculiar lose-lose.
—Jim D., Jericho, Vt.
That’s a strange way of looking at it. The Falcons have a franchise receiver, clearly one of the best six or eight receivers at a time in NFL history that teams are throwing the ball more than ever. The Browns have nothing to show for a collection of five prime draft choices, all of which have been blown. Obviously, if Atlanta had kept all of those picks, the Falcons may have made some great choices. But to say that the Falcons made a mistake by acquiring a franchise receiver and trading away a bunch of picks just doesn’t make much sense to me.
I think it’s preposterous for anyone to believe that no NFL quarterback speaks with the guys who are in charge of their game balls. I’d be amazed if they didn’t talk to these gentlemen weekly. I find it awfully incriminating towards Tom Brady that not one current quarterback has come to his defense. Why hasn’t one? Because they all have a say in how to prep their game balls. That to me is the most damning piece of evidence.
I think there are two different factors involved in game ball preparation that people have forgotten, in the course of this whole debacle. Obviously there is the inflation of the ball to a level that each quarterback likes, between 12.5 pounds per square inch and 13.5. But there is also what quarterbacks do to footballs during the week to prepare them, to be broken in the way they like. These are two completely different subjects. All quarterbacks have a preference about the feel of of ball and how much it has been broken in before that quarterback uses it as a ball during the game. Some quarterbacks use a ball in practice for two or three weeks before picking it out of a pile as a well-broken-in ball that then becomes a game ball. I think all quarterbacks have varying routines when it comes to preparing those balls for games. The inflation of the footballs is an entirely different subject, and I’ve not heard in my years covering football much discussion at all by quarterbacks or by teams about levels of inflation and what certain quarterbacks like. That has all come recently with this story. Moreoever, after they've been broken in during the week, all balls are checked by the officials before the game, and the ones outside the allowable range are inflated or deflated to bring them within range. I personally don’t believe that the silence of quarterbacks around the NFL about Tom Brady is very significant at all.
WILL JOHN AND JIM TALK?
I’m curious about one aspect of Deflategate that gets no mention from any of the columns I’ve read or radio shows I listen to. Why is it that John Jastremski and Jim McNally have not been heard from publicly? Surely many writers and reporters have approached these two for interviews. As I see it, they’ve already been dismissed by the Patriots. What incentive do they have for remaining silent? I really would like to hear their side of the story.
—Kevin C., Racine, Wisc.
That’s a good question. I think it is most likely that both men have been told on the advice of attorneys to shut up about this. Both of them talked at length to NFL officials and the Wells Report attorneys, and I’m not really sure how much more there is that they can say. I would, however, like to hear both of them answer a simple question: Did Tom Brady or any representative of Tom Brady ever direct you or suggest to you that the footballs used by the Patriots on offense should be inflated below the NFL’s minimum 12.5 psi standard? That, to me, is the only relevant question worth asking these two men.
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